Mindfulness and Christianity

The concept of mindfulness has become very popular in psychotherapy literature over the past few years, in part because of its use in a number of newer, effective, and respected models of psychotherapy, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. As a result, some Christians in the field have also been expressing interest in the concept. What are we to think about it?

First, what is mindfulness? Bishop, et al., (2004) have described it in the following way:

“The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” (p. 232

The therapeutic value of this mental practice has been well documented, along with many other closely related concepts that are also aspects of self-regulation, and many psychologists consider self-regulation to be an important component of mature human life as well as a means and a positive outcome of good therapy. In Foundations for Soul Care (2007) I asserted that training people in dipolar self-regulation (in dependence on God) is an essential aspect of Christian soul care (i.e., psychotherapy, counseling, and spiritual direction).

But what about mindfulness? Is mindfulness simply a worldview-neutral concept? I don’t think so, since it is widely acknowledged that mindfulness derives from Buddhism. “Right mindfulness is the 7th noble truth of the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism. This fact should give Christians pause about whether they ought to employ the term and concept.

Let me begin by stating clearly that I don’t think Christians have to use a completely different soul-healing vocabulary, for example, only using words found in the Bible. God has so ordered human life that it is necessary for humans to share a common vocabulary about most of life, so we should not think that it is somehow necessarily better to always use different terminology. Influenced by MacIntyre (1990), I have argued (2007) that most of the time Christian psychologists should just utilize scientific vocabulary coined by other responsible scientists (what MacIntyre called same-saying and transliteration), especially when they are describing aspects of the created order. However, I also wrote that the meaning of some words/concepts is so tainted by assumptions of another worldview that Christians need to come up with another term (what MacIntyre called substitution). I also think mindfulness is. Why?

First, because we are talking about the healing of the soul (psychotherapy), and not simply created aspects of human nature. Christianity has a very unique Christ-centered model of soul-healing. Therefore, Christians need to be especially careful about borrowing terms from other soul-healing systems of thought and practice based on an alternative worldview.

Second, because we already have some excellent, centuries-old, analogous Christian terms, like “self-examination,” “inwardness,” “transparency,” “contemplation,” “detachment,” “watchfulness,” and “surrender.” So it is not like we have to borrow some other terms to label aspects of inwardness and specific therapeutic activities. What might be some advantages of using Christian terms in therapy when we have them?

1)    Part of the nature of therapeutic discourse defines who we are and so helps to constitute our identity. When counseling Christians it is generally better to use terms that help to constitute a Christian identity.

2)    Very practically, it promotes greater value congruence between Christian counselors and their counselees.

3)    Christians have a rich soul-care heritage. It is important that we invest ourselves in that heritage as we seek to help people towards comprehensive healing in Christ. Some Christians seem so eager to look outside our own tradition, when we possess tremendous underutilized soul-care resources given to us by God.

4)    Using the term “mindfulness” may raise questions in the broader Christian community and legitimize Fundamentalist suspicions about Christian psychotherapy and counseling.

5)    There is also the apologetic value of demonstrating to the broader Western community the resourcefulness and value of Christian soul-healing.

But can’t we at least consider the concept of “mindfulness” to be worldview neutral, since it is simply the activity of being aware of one’s inner world? I don’t think so. The focus of one’s attention in mindfulness is very typically Buddhist and so devoid of moral and spiritual discrimination: “openness and acceptance of one’s inner world.” However, Christians have a more complex task. We are to be open to all that’s going on within: our God-given goodness, as well as our sin and brokenness—and we can be because of our union with Christ—but some of what we find there will be sinful. Christians need not be afraid of that because Christ has died for all our sin and cleansed us from all our shame and guilt. But part of our self-examination will involve repentance and putting some of what we find to death (Col 3:5). How Christians can do that requires more space than we have here, but the point here is that the concept of mindfulness imports more worldview baggage than one might think at first glance.

In contrast to the secular concept of mindfulness of Buddhism (and contemporary models of naturalistic therapy), Christian self-examination has some real distinctives.

1)    It is fundamentally relational. Whereas secular mindfulness is a solitary practice done by and with oneself, Christian self-examination is prayerful and radically dependent upon the Holy Spirit. Our God is our soul-shepherd, who loves us and wants to help us to get to know ourselves and gain healing through all that he has done on our behalf. We examine ourselves with him present within (by the indwelling Holy Spirit), relying on his help and counsel.

2)    Christian self-examination is also shaped by Scripture. Christians have known for millennia that reading Scripture prayerfully and meditatively is a key way that God opens up the soul and brings in healing.

3)    Acceptance is not the same as crucifixion and resurrection. There is supposed to be a mediating cognitive/affective transformation.

Both aspects are brought out in Heb 4:12-13: “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit…and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”  

Secular mindfulness rightly points people to the value of becoming more aware of their internal world—a very important soul-care skill. We Christian counselors can do a better job of reclaiming our own heritage and training those we counsel how to work on their souls in relationship with the triune God and in the light of Scripture.


Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., Segal, J.V., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D., & Devins, G. (2004). “Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition.” Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 11 (3), 230–241.

Johnson, E. L. (2007). Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

MacIntyre, A. (1990). Whose justice? Which rationality? South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

I Can’t Tolerate…ME.


What do you struggle to tolerate? Is it slow drivers abusing the fast lane? Shoppers abusing the 10 item or less line? Lactose? Gluten? Politicians abusing power? Hollywood elites abusing people? There’s intolerance everywhere. But what about you, do you tolerate you? Sometimes I don’t tolerate me.

Intolerance of self further damages our humanity. Intolerance of our bodies, our faces, our stories, our past, and our brokenness is hurtful. We are only human and that means we have limitations and brokenness. It’s part of our human condition, but it’s often a part we struggle to accept or tolerate. Intolerance of our true humanity impacts how we show up in life.

Let’s back up to explain. Our spiritual ancestors, Adam and Eve, abused the power and freedom they had in God’s garden (Genesis 3). They chose to turn from him and snatch the forbidden fruit. Every one of us has followed suit. They started a crazy train of personal intolerance that leads us into into fear and falseness, like it did them.

Their intolerance was their unwillingness to accept that they had turned away from God. Instead, they pointed fingers at one another and God. They wouldn’t tolerate the reality of their brokenness and accept personal responsibility for a fractured relationship with God. So Adam blames Eve and God, and Eve plays the victim to a serpent. Unwilling to own their sin, they hide behind masks of falseness.

The masks they wore were born of fear. They feared the consequence of owning their sin. They feared standing in the light before God. They feared his response. So, they hid from him rather than standing in the light and saying, ‘Father, here we are, we blew it big time.’

The truth is we all blow it. When we pursue our deepest longings in ungodly ways, we blow it. Adam and Eve tried to fix it, to make a wrong right, by covering themselves in a lie. The lie was born of fear. They put on masks attempting to fool God and each other. The mask of victim and the mask of blamer were lies – they were false ways of pursing a re-connection to God. It failed miserably and the disconnect grew deeper.

We all have masks, and they do us no good. I have the mask of a performer, among others. It’s the false part of me trying to measure up – for me, you and God. It’s driven by the fear that the real me is not enough. It’s fueled by the fear that if you know the real me, my sin, my suffering, my limitations, you will reject me. You see the fear is you won’t tolerate the real me. And deep within I already don’t tolerate me.

My intolerance of my own broken humanity, self rejection, coupled with the imagination of others rejection, prompts the mask of a performer. The performers mask covers the fear of rejection, and both conceal the true self longing to be loved and welcomed.

There are lots of masks such as the people pleaser, judge, cynic, know-it-all, recluse, joker, stoic and hundreds more. There are endless false ways to attempt to cope with our brokenness. The only way to truly be free is to tolerate ourselves. To own our brokenness before God and others.

The true self appears when we shake off our fear and the lies it believes, stand in the light, and accept the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. To tolerate myself begs that I trust that Jesus truly holds me, covers me and secures me in love. His covering alone makes me tolerable, totally acceptable, completely welcome to our heavenly Father. Jesus reconciles us to God such that we need not fear, nor hide in falseness, from Him, one another or ourselves

The true self becomes buried behind layers of fear and falseness. Sometimes the intolerance feels so right, so normal, that we don’t even know the false layers exist, but they do. The remedy is the love of Christ. A love that tolerates the true me, the true you, because we have been remade, reconciled and redeemed by the power of His blood.

Jesus breaks the chains of intolerance, casts off the fear, stripes away the mask and welcomes us to the light. I’m working on tolerating me, because Jesus already has.

Message from the ICP Chair

Dear Friends of ICP:

2017 was a full and exciting year for the Institute for Christian Psychology.

Our vision is to see Christ-centered, emotional, relational, and spiritual wholeness for all people. To that end, we presented 3 highly successful events for the Louisville community. Two offered Christ-centered approaches to navigating through Perfectionism and Anxiety, and we closed out our year with a September event that introduced Eric Johnson's most recent book, "God and Soul Care". Dr. Johnson spoke to a standing room only group on the healing and redemptive power of God's love.

We look to 2018 with much dependence and anticipation of how God will continue to use you, our friends, financial supporters, and ministry partners, to expand our capacity to equip the churches, locally and across the nation. Dozens of churches and ministries are in need of the unique tools of Christian Psychology to renew the Body of Christ and reach out to the lost.  We have all experienced the brokenness of sin, suffering and damage to some degree, and at ICP, we are invested in helping others to receive the healing power of the gospel.

You can be a part of making that difference by donating today.

Our goal is to raise $200,000 by January 31, 2018, and our board is invested; we have collectively seeded the first 10% of this goal by personally making our donations this month. These monies will be put toward:

1.      Publishing training materials for churches and counselors that have already been
        developed by ICP

2.      Providing actual soul-care help for ministries and churches that are financially unable to
         do so themselves

3.      Funding resources to deliver workshops for church leaders and professionals.

This letter requests your prayerful consideration of a tax-deductible donation to join us in the work of ICP so that we can continue to impart wholeness in the body of Christ. Visit our website at icpconnect.org to listen to archived talks and learn more about the variety and detail of projects we have underway that need funding. 

May Christ's peace be yours to the fullest, most especially in this season of celebrating God with us.

On behalf of the entire board

Lia Vassiliades
Chair, ICP


Dialogue vs debate.

The Institute for Christian Psychology exists to see Christ-centered relational, emotional, and spiritual wholeness for all people. But this objective is too much large for one parachurch counseling organization...or a dozen. This means that we are ardently striving to work alongside other believers who want to see expansion of the same objective. Stated another way: our tribe is more than just Christian Psychology adherents; we are working along side many Christian integrationists and Biblical counselors as well. 

In the interest of encouraging dialogue about how we can best work together and sharpen each other, ICP will be posting a series of blogs addressing several of the pertinent issues at hand. To kick this off we'd like to start with a post from one of our Biblical Counseling friends, Brad Hambrick, M.Div., Th.M. Brad is the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church and Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

Click the giant button below to head over to Brad's personal blog.

The Imago Dei: A Folk Psychology Construct of the Whole Person

[The following are the notes from Eric Johnson's presentation at 125th APA Annual Convention August 3-6, 2017]


The most common ways to think about and perceive the whole human in modern psychology are personality, the self, and narrative (a temporal holistic concept). However, two other whole-person constructs were extremely important in the West for two to three millennia before modern psychology came on the scene: character and the imago Dei (or “image of God”).[1] The latter construct has been foundational to the folk psychology of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities, though the Christian community has historically utilized the concept to a greater degree than the other two groups. Given the positivism and secularity that has dominated modern psychology throughout its short history, it is not surprising that this perspective on the whole person was not appropriated. However, in what follows, extending the work begun in Johnson (2015), it will be shown that the construct is foundational for contemporary theistic psychologies, because of its psychological, relational, axiological, and religious implications that bear on human self-understanding. However, it will also be suggested that this ancient, theologically-based, folk-psychology concept might be of interest to contemporary mainstream psychology. To indicate something of the latter agenda, consider that all humans are evaluative beings with various kinds of positive and negative values, and a central part of their being involves making determinations continuously regarding good and bad, and then living in such a way as to obtain the good and avoid the bad. While there are plenty of ways to approach the study of humans as evaluative beings, one way is to view them as the imago Dei

The Value of Lay Psychology Constructs

The Value of Psychological Constructs Found Only in Specific Subcultures

There has been a growing recognition that cultural assumptions affect the psychological formation of human beings, as well as their scientific investigation. Cultural psychology has found that many psychological phenomena (e.g., intelligence, narrative, emotion and motivation, psychopathology) are at least partially constituted by cultural factors (Kitayama & Cohen, 2007), and such research has begun to document the impact of culture on positive psychology phenomena, for example, like character strengths (McGrath, 2015), especially happiness (Park, Peterson, & Ruch, 2009; Tov & Diener, 2007).


The Basic Meaning of the Imago Dei according to Christianity

As already above, the three main theistic religions of the West all make use of the concept of the imago Dei, but from my vantage point (which may be biased), Christianity has worked the most with the concept. Regardless, I will conduct my exploration of the topic from the Christian tradition, of which I am a member. As is well known, the concept first occurs in Western literature in the opening chapter of the Bible: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heaves and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1: 26-27). However, little explanation was given there as to what it means. Research on the relevant texts (including the texts of related cultures), suggests that the original meaning was that humans are considered to be concrete images or representations on earth of an invisible God, ruling over the creation as he does (Genesis commentary citations) (citations). Subsequent reflection on the concept among Christians has led to three basic approaches to what the imago Dei means.[2]

Resembling God’s Ontological Form

The first involves the identification of features of human beings that are believed to resemble features that the God of Western monotheism also possesses: reasoning and wisdom, personality, freedom and personal agency, creativity, relationality, virtuous character, and oversight of and care for the creation are some of the most common features identified (Aquinas, 1949; Bavinck, 2004). The overlap between the imago Dei and personality architecture should be obvious, but it encompasses much more.

Since such features develop throughout childhood and into adulthood, it suggests that the imago Dei also develops over time (Pannenberg, 1985; Grenz, 2000). Considered as a unified, composite, dynamic structure, this interpretation brings out the transcendent, “pointing function” that the whole human is believed to have. In Western theism, a human being is considered to be a sign of God: similar to, but different from the form of God. Such an assumption bestows transcendent meaning and dignity on human life that many find encouraging, meaningful, enlightening, and morally significant. The imago Dei construct, therefore, provides a way that organizes and unites the above psychological capacities around a single meaningful concept: resemblance to God. In addition, to know that one is merely an image of God—and not God—would seem to provide at least a theoretical limit on unhealthy perfectionism and narcissism.

What are psychologists to do with such lists of capacities. In classical Western thought, rationality was often given as a reason for human distinctiveness and value, and so it has often been highlighted as humanity’s key likeness to God. However, rationality “seems to be not a single, simple feature of persons but a complex system of capacities….” Instead, it may be better “to count this system of capacities as an excellence with respect to which we surpass sheep,” for example (Adams, 1999, p. 115). So then, human excellence “includes rationality, but also emotional, social, and creative capacities related to rationality but going beyond it in various ways.” (Adams, p. 117)

We might ask the question at this point, is there any significance to the fact that humans have an extraordinary set of capacities compared to the rest of known universe? Positivism said no, and modern psychology accepted such a conclusion as a necessary implication of intellectual progress. However, we might wonder if this nihilistic approach to human life is actually adaptive, fulfilling, as well as true. 

Resembling God’s Character

Another prominent model considers the imago Dei to be ethicospiritual in nature; humans image God by becoming more holy, good, and righteous. The emphasis of this model is on taking on more of the moral traits that God has. Like the previous model, it too is developmental, but the imago Dei in this case involves more intentionality as one is being transformed more and more into a representation of the beautiful, virtuous character of God by seeking God through prayer and meditation and practicing the virtues, and one becomes more whole, the more one is like God. All three theistic religions of the West also affirm this model, while also teaching that the human relationship with God has been compromised by human sin, and they each have articulated different pathways for the quest for God-likeness.

Actively Receiving God’s Form

A third model of the imago Dei found in Christianity is much less prominent than the others, but is also, I think, the most profound. It is reflected, in part, in Sören Kierkegaard’s (1849/1980b) definition of faith as “that the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God” (p. 82), which highlights both the human activity involved and one’s relationship with God. In this approach the imago Dei is viewed as essentially dynamic, personal, and relational, involving God as much as the individual human, who actively receives and participate in God’s own goodness, who is simultaneously giving the goodness. In that sense the imago is more like a mirror (Irenaeus, ????; Calvin, 1559/1960), than a pattern of similarities to God, except that the metaphor of a mirror does not do justice to the personal activity of either God or humans. As it is, this model ennoblizes human beings, while at the same time providing a transcendent basis for humility.

Worship and Devotion

Finally, some theists consider the imago Dei to refer to an intrinsic orientation that all humans have to worship or to give themselves to some object of ultimate devotion, termed God, the gods, the Good (Adams, 1999), a hyper-good (Taylor, 1989), or an ultimate concern (Emmons, 1999; Tillich, 1957). Here, the imago Dei has to do with the human capacity to love someone or something maximally. The human quest for meaning and significance that logotherapy, and existentialist and narrative therapy work with are given a theistic interpretation from this perspective.


Psychological Functions of the Imago Dei Concept

So to what psychological use can such theological work as the foregoing be put?

The Imago Dei as a Basis for the Sense of Human Dignity and Self-Respect

One of the paradoxical challenges that modern psychology has faced throughout its short history is how does one maintain a sense of meaningfulness and value when one’s WV and epistemology necessitate that such concepts are meaningless. This is particularly problematic in psychotherapy, when people come in who are suffering from a lack of meaning, if there is no meaning to be had beyond what one posits for oneself.

Western theism offers a WV framework for psychology that contrasts sharply with naturalism and positivism, because it typically assumes a values-realism grounded in the meaningfulness of God and all that God has created. Historically, as we have seen, theists have believed that ontological and characterological features that humans share with God constitute the imago Dei. Such features, or at least their potential, have been considered to be grounds for human sacredness. Such a belief is attested to “by our reaction to violations to human persons” (Adams, 1999, p. 108; much that follows is indebted to Adams). When most humans witness various forms of moral horror—which Adams defines as a serious, direct, hostile attack against humans, usually crossing their will, body, or selfhood, and damaging or destroying something—they respond with revulsion and perhaps a shudder. Humans typically feel bad about the destruction of a work of art, but most feel considerably less anguish and revulsion than if the object is another human. This suggests that humans possess a kind of sacredness that humans are aware of at some level, which gets activated most clearly when faced with violations to human persons. The concept of the imago Dei provides a label for that which humans are aware of that points to their own dignity, mystery, and uniqueness. Adams bases this awareness on human ontological resemblance to God.

I can imagine a plausible evolutionary account of the origins of this sense. However, a strictly secular evolutionary account seems to undercut the experience, for it grounds such a sense in species survival and reproductive fitness. But when one becomes aware of a specific case of moral horror, for example, when someone is raped or tortured, a strictly secular evolutionary explanation would seem somehow to trivialize the experience of the horror, that is, the sense that someone’s personhood has been violated. It appears, however, that a sense of one’s own sacredness or the sacredness of others can be impaired by repeated trauma and maltreatment.

The Imago Dei as Love of the Good

One way of combining certain aspects of the four models of the imago Dei that we have looked at suggests that humans resemble God the more they share God’s loves. This raises the topics of values and goods and human evaluation of them.

The human emotion-system is genetically, neurologically, and hormonally wired to discriminate between what is good for us and what is bad for us. This set of evaluative abilities is in turn shaped by social and cultural influences, and as we mature, it becomes quite wide-ranging and fine-tuned. We have tastes and preferences, the obtaining of which we can do without, and we can tell apart from our goods and our loves, which are more substantial and meaningful. Humans differ from one another in striking ways in terms of their respective loves and often judge each other in reference to what they perceive as an objective order of goods. To love food is good, but love one’s neighbor is better, and we pity or despise those who cannot make such basic kinds of discriminations regarding goods. Humans are furthermore able to distinguish between a subjective side of goods—how we feel about them—and an objective side—whether they are really good for us or not, because we can be profoundly mistaken about our perceived goods, as with a drug addiction. So that Taylor (1989) argues that all humans desire “to be rightly placed in relation to the good” (p. 44). This means that humans assume value-realism and that there are genuine goods to obtain in life and genuine evils to avoid.

Of course, the fact that we disagree with each other shows that human finitude and turpitude inevitably render our judgments imperfect to some degree. But the observations we made above suggest that the values relativist is wrong to conclude from such human limitations that any confidence in our value judgments is unwarranted. Rather, values discernment involves taking such limitations into account and not being overly confident in our abilities, so that we seek out counsel when needed, particularly while developing the skills of discernment. But human limitations cannot undermine the nearly universal human desire to “make the best sense of our lives” (Taylor, 1989, p. 57) that we can. This quest for the good and for meaningfulness in relation to the good defines one’s identity and gives significance to one’s story. To know that one is turned away from the good is to plunge oneself into despair. On the other hand, “the assurance that I am turned towards this good gives me a sense of wholeness, of fullness of being as a person or self, that nothing else can.” (Taylor, p. 63). So, among the many abilities of human beings that distinguish them as a species perhaps at the top is the evaluation of goods and evils.

According to theism, God is the greatest Good, that is, the greatest being there is; and being made in God’s image means human life is rendered most meaningful by being like him and loving him with all our hearts. This is to mirror God and also to participate in God’s goodness, which theism believes leads to the greatest fulfillment of our nature. This orientation to love the greatest Good is, of course, the essence of religion. However, there is no reason to exclude any humans from this aspect of being. As was suggested, all mature humans have the tendency to know, admire, identify with, love, and even worship that which is ultimate to them. In most cases, historically and culturally, such ultimate objects of devotion have been the explicit and transcendent center of what we call religion, but they need not be transcendent. Secular objects, activities, persons, causes, and ideals can serve the same ultimate function.

Though religious experts are divided on this score (perhaps distinguished by whether they are theists or naturalists), theists might suppose that when such objects are regarded as ultimate they are implicitly religious. Classical Buddhism has been commonly considered a religion in the West, but its hyper-good is thoroughly secular, the good of individual enlightenment. And in the modern era, humanism and Marxism similarly posit and pursue immanent goods, self-realization or economic equality respectively, and not the transcendent goods of what have traditionally been called religions. Working for a meaningful cause, like exposing political corruption or fighting against systemic discrimination, can also constitute such a good, and one can think of any number of secular examples of ultimate devotion, including science, the environment, or even wealth and possessions. That which is ultimate is that for which one lives.

A psychologist-philosopher no less secular than John Dewey has suggested that “The religious is ‘morality touched with emotions’ only when the ends of moral conviction arouse emotions that are not only intense but are actuated and supported by ends so inclusive that they unity the self.” “This comprehensive attitude…is much broader than anything indicated by ‘moral’ in its usual sense.” (p. 179; Dewey, A Common Faith, p. 22f).

To perceive the ultimate is to experience what some have called elevation, awe, or transcendence (Haidt, ????; Selgiman & Peterson, 2004), and happens in religious ecstasy, a walk in nature. “In the experience of beauty—the beauty of a person or work of art or the evening light falling on leaves or mountains—is it not true that we are apt to feel that we are dinly aware of something too wonderful to be contained or carried either by our experience or by the physical or conceptual objects we are perceiving?” (Adams, 1999, p. 51). Such experiences are accessible to all kinds of people, regardless of their WV beliefs or values, but the theist interprets them as signs of God or of the Good. However, another of the limits of human life is that such experiences are fragmentary, transitory, and feel somehow distant from the source.

But What of Lesser Goods?

According to classical Western theism, because God is the greatest being there is, God loves goodness wherever it exists according to its measure of goodness. Being in God’s image, therefore, would mean finding our greatest fulfillment in loving God supremely—the essence of Goodness—but also loving lesser goods according to their measure of goodness, as well as one’s calling, present relationships, and limitations. Such a love of the Good encourages humans to love all the other good things of this world in relation to the greatest Good: sunsets, rainbows, animals, children, our neighbors, human virtues, and the quest for greater Goodness.

The Problem of Idolatry      

An evaluative science also has to address the problem of excessive devotion. Even a love of the Good can become excessive when it results in self-righteousness or judgmentalism. Idolatry occurs when one gives “to anything finite a worship, a devotion, a trust, or any other response that belongs only to God.” Tillich (1951) wrote that, “Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy,” for example, “religious nationalism” (Adams, 1999, p. 200).

Another problem, from a monotheistic standpoint, is having a plurality of objects of ultimate devotion: polytheism. According to H. Richard Niebuhr (1970), what distinguishes monotheism is “the relating of all beings and all value to a single source” (p. 33). Without an explicit, clearly defined object of ultimate devotion, it may be the case that secularism inevitably leads to having multiple, implicit objects of ultimate devotion.

All this creates some different ways of thinking about psychology and also opens up some new avenues for research. Modern psychology has typically viewed human beings fundamentally individualistically (though some approaches in modern psychology are admittedly more relational, like family systems theory, attachment theory, and object relations theory). However, the imago Dei concept necessitates a relational model for the study of human beings. According to theism, the psychological functioning of human beings cannot be fully understood apart from their relation to God or the Good. With regard to research, this approach provides a framework for the study of tastes, preferences, values, goods, and loves, and how they differ subjectively and objectively, in light of the Good. The investigation of emotions, drives, motives, desires, and loves can be conducted in light of the Good. Then, a “negative psychology” could be developed that studies healthy negativity: resistance to and hatred of evil in relation to the Good. Research can be conducted on people’s hierarchy of goods and evils, including the ultimate Good and those secondary and tertiary goods that nevertheless take up much of our time, in light of the Good, and how cultures differ in their hierarchies of goods and evils. Finally, there is the psychopathology of evaluation: the study of idolatry, the excessive love of inferior objects, and the love of evil and the hatred of good.


The Imago Dei Offers a Transcendent Perspective for Intrapersonal Integration

Earlier, we looked at the nature of evaluation culminating for humans in love of the Good, which for theists is identified with God. But if love of God is supreme, what is the value of all other things? Part of the challenge of any model of human evaluation that assumes the existence of a normative system of goods is the relation of subordinate goods to the highest good. Does the love of lesser goods compete with our love of the greatest Good or can the enjoyment of lesser goods be ways of loving God, their telos and fulfillment? Understood in the latter way, enjoying lesser goods for the sake of God is a way of participating in God’s goodness. Such an orientation points to one of the most valuable psychological aspects of the imago Dei concept: its potential to foster the integration of the human person. 

For many reasons, contemporary humans live fragmented, harried lives that leave many people depleted, exhausted, and chronically dissatisfied. Research on poor attachment and early childhood trauma suggests that greater internal fragmentation and dissociation leads to compromised psychology and relational functioning in adulthood. Many have suggested that human development, maturation, and recovery from trauma are all facilitated by promoting greater internal coherence and integration of one’s brain, through the integration of one’s narrative, emotions, thoughts, and desires. One way this can be promoted is by deliberately subordinating the secondary goods of one’s life to the highest Good, organizing one’s life around that Good, and relating all of one’s internal world to that Good. In the Christian tradition, that process has been called recollection or being centered, it leads to a state of simplicity and unity, and it is likely one of the greatest psychological benefits provided by many of the world’s major religions. They differ greatly, of course, with regard to how secondary goods are related to the Good. Some gain simplicity in the ascetic renunciation of all secondary goods, and this undoubtedly leads to greater coherence and less internal conflict, and it may be the quickest way towards a degree of wholeness. However, for most theists, the ascetic way seems too severe to work as a universal rule and too antagonistic to the genuine goods that come from God, which though secondary, are still good.

Consequently, it will be argued here that the healthiest, most comprehensive, and most wholesome way towards internal integration is the folding of one’s secondary loves into the supreme love of the Good, so that they remain distinctly secondary, but are also relished in proper proportion to their relative goodness. This way of integration allows humans to participate in the Good and constitutes one of the most important psychological functions of the imago Dei. Of course, this merits empirical investigation.

Doesn’t this entire talk belong in psychology of religion?

I would argue that that it all depends on one’s WV assumptions. If naturalism is true and positivism is a valid epistemology, then yes this is a psychology of religion paper.

But if theism is true, then what I’ve been describing is the way human beings actually are and has been psychological all the way through, whereas psychology of religion ironically trivializes ultimate concerns that profoundly affect human life and distorts human life by marginalizing ultimate concerns as if only explicitly religious people have them.

Our problem is that WVs and their views of human beings are contestable, and they cannot be proven to those who don’t already hold them.

Another possibility would be to consider it an example of cultural psychology (or subcultural psychology). But if we do that, I would ask that discussions of psychology based in naturalism also be considered as cultural (or subcultural) psychology, and what we’re left with is most of psychology will be considered a pluralistic set of psychologies, at least in those areas where WV assumptions affect what is being described. That may be the best way forward.

But I’m grateful to Div 24 for allowing this talk to be given as a theoretical and philosophical talk. In philosophy, there is a such as Christian philosophy and it happens to be a thriving enterprise these days, with journals, conferences, and countless books being published from that perspective. It is my hope that theistic psychology and even Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu psychologies will be allowed a voice within American psychology.

The Imago Dei and Attribution

The Imago Dei as a Form of Virtuous Beauty

The Imago Dei as Social Union

The Imago Dei as Relationship with God

The Meaningful Function of Values



I realize this discussion will not be helpful to everyone. But to move towards a cultural psychology that is truly universal requires addressing concepts that not everyone will recognize. From the standpoint of a Christian theist, this concept is rich and universal. However, outside a theistic community, the value of this concept will seem limited.

At the same time, I hope that even hearers who are not members of a theistic WV community will recognize that the foregoing considerations are fundamentally psychological in nature and therefore worthy of inclusion in a comprehensive model of psychology. Over the centuries in the West, and now increasingly in many different cultures, the imago Dei concept has provided a major sense of unity, coherence, and meaningfulness in human life, tying together all of one’s life in relation to God. As a result, for theists the imago Dei provides a way to integrate all the forms we have considered under a transcendent, unifying, spiritual orientation.



Adams, R. M. (1999). Finite and infinite goods: A framework for ethics. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Aquinas, Thomas. (1949). Basic writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. New York: Random House.

Barth, K.

Bavinck, H. (2004). Reformed dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and creation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford.

Bosch, T., & Sander, D. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook of value: Perspectives from economics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Calvin, J.

Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns. New York: Guilford.

Grenz, S. J. (2001). The social God and the relational self: A Trinitarian theology of the Imago Dei. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.

Higgins, E. T. (2006). Value from hedonic experience and engagement. Psychological Review, 113 (3), 439-460

Johnson, E. L. (2015). Mapping the field of the whole human : Toward a form psychology. New Ideas in Psychology, 38, 4-24.

Kierkegaard, S.

Kilmann, R. H. (1981). Toward a unique/useful concept of values for interpersonal behavior: A critical review of the literature on value. Psychological Reports, 48 (3), 939-959.

Niebuhr, H. R. (1970). Radical monotheism and Western culture. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Pannenberg, W. (1985). Anthropology in theological perspective. (M.J. O’Connell, Trans.).

Philadelphia: Westminster.

Tillich, P. (1951). Systematic theology. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] The Latin form of this concept is used to distinguish it from a very different psychological construct, the God-image, which is the mental representation one has of God (see Moriarity & Hoffman, 2007).

[2] Being most familiar with the Christian tradition, I will restrict most of my comments to that model.

Climbing Out of the Box: An Invitation to a Discussion about the Future of Christian Counseling

By: Timothy A. Sisemore, Ph.D. • Director of Research and Professor • Richmont Graduate University

            Since I was in graduate school over 35 years ago, there have been basically two paths for a Christian to take if he or she felt called by God to counsel.  The biblical counselors hung near the church and seminaries and promoted counseling wholly based on the Bible.  They spurned secular professional models of mental health care, choosing a path that almost completely denied the possibility that psychological science had anything at all to offer.  Yet, they did so with complete freedom to follow the Word of God, unencumbered by secular agencies and state boards.  Sure, they lost out on insurance reimbursement, but the problems they treated were defined as spiritual and not medical in any way.

            The road most taken was to go to a program that integrated Christian faith into psychology or counseling.  From the pioneers of Fuller Seminary, Rosemead, and the Psychological Studies Institute (now Richmont Graduate University), these programs multiplied across America, moving from doctoral psychology programs primarily to many masters level counseling programs.  In these counseling/psychotherapy is a profession, and is to be done under the auspices of the state and as monitored by accrediting agencies.  For example, my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, was the first to receive the blessing of the American Psychological Association while maintaining a clear basis in Christian faith and doctrine.

            In this model, Christian worldview and theology could be integrated with secular models of psychotherapy, yielding explicitly Christian approaches that included insights and techniques from secular psychology. Good research, after all, is viewed as a way of discerning the general revelation of God.  The led to the emergence of Christian psychologists and counselors who worked under licenses for the most part, but were free to make their faith a part of the process when counseling other Christians.  Here was the best of both worlds: third party reimbursement with the freedom to be true to one’s faith.  Life was good, even if the biblical counselors kept hounding the integrators with questions about how a Christian worldview was not somehow compromised in this bargain.

            If one goes further back, the biblical counselors are closer to the history of Christian soul care.  “Counseling” more commonly occurred within the church by spiritual leaders rather than by outside professionals.  Counsel was sought from those that the community deemed wise, rather than those who the state certified as competent in some sense.

            Yet, the arrangement with the state has largely worked for many years.  Churches have slowly come to trust the mental health professions, or at least certain Christian therapists whose doctrinal position was known.  As for the professionals, the church/state mix worked pretty well also.  Sacred to the ethics of the counseling professions was that the individual provider could be true to his or her ownvalues and would not counsel contrary to one’s values, but would refer clients whose interests conflicted to a provider where they would find more common ground.

            Well, the times they are a’changin.  Specifically, the new code of ethics for the American Counseling Association makes clear that – at least for trainees – the values of the counseling profession supersede the personal values of the individual counselor.  Suddenly the Christian may not be able to be true to one’s worldview when counseling.  But this also may uncover a slower process that had been ongoing: the erosion of Christian counseling as a worldview and a comprehensive model to a selective use of spiritual techniques used only in conjunction with the spiritual values of the counselee – all while accepting a secular conceptualization of what counseling is.

            Responses to these changes have been almost uniform:  Christian schools, desperate to stay in business, have struggled to find ways to still say they are Christian yet kowtow to these regulations for fear graduates will not be able to get licenses if they do not.  If a program does not lead to licensure, then it may not draw students and thus cannot survive financially.  Even as these changes occur, more and more Christian schools – even traditionally conservative and evangelical ones – are marching to get CACREP accreditation as CACREP lobbies hard to require licensees to be from their programs.  One cannot imagine that APA, AAMFT, or other groups will be far behind. It seems likely that the future will hold that “Christian counseling” may no longer occur under the auspices of state licenses and be a violation of cultural values and even a crossing of the line between church and state as it is being defined these days.

            So, the time is at hand to step out of the box of licensure, and being thinking of how Christian therapists can be wholly true to their faith, counseling within the Christian worldview and drawing from psychological theory and research that is deeply vetted to be consistent with faith.  What might that look like? Is there some middle ground between licensed counselors and biblical counselors?  Are there alternative ways to deliver quality Christian counseling without compromise, remaining free from state and secular interference? 

            It is to this end I want to start a discussion. Several of us around the country are already brainstorming and praying about this, and we would welcome voices that might contribute to a healthy dialogue conducted in Christian love.  What is counseling that is truly Christian and a form of soul care? Does it have to be medicalized into a “treatment” for “mental illness”?  How can we respond to secularization of Christian values and ways the gospel may be compromised if we simply roll with the edicts of secular agencies?  What would such counseling look like? What training would it require? Would there be a way to advocate so that it couldbe done under the limits of a secular license, or do we need to consider freeing ourselves from state and secular control so that Christian counseling is subject only to Christ?  These are difficult questions, but it is vital that we begin discussing them so we provide paths for the future that protect the integrity of the work of Christian counseling and the welfare of believers who come to us assuming what we offer is consistent with traditional Christianity.

            Pray for this process. Offer some thoughts in an entry to be posted here.  Let’s converse about his, seeking God’s guidance together.  There will be various viewpoints, but we pray they are all consistent with the love of Christ.

Advent Therapy

Originally Posted on December 13, 2015 | CHUCK DEGROAT

For years now I’ve been probing the deep psychological wisdom of the ancient mothers and fathers - the pastoral wisdom of St. Gregory, the introduction to story found in St. Augustine’s life and confessions, the developmental pilgrimage to union and flourishing in St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, the invitation to “self-acquaintance” by Richard Baxter. I’ve found this journey to be an immense gift to my clinical work, as it provides the larger Story by which I navigate the particular stories of people in pain.

Part of my work as a pastor of spiritual formation at two different churches was mapping this Story onto the life of a congregation. Thankfully, I didn’t need to create a map. We’ve been given one in the church calendar. The yearly rhythm of the calendar is a kind of corrective to our anxious spirits. It is an antidote to whatever "security strategy" we’ve chosen to live our lives, whether that strategy takes the form of narcissistic control or passive dependency or anxious indecision or a hundred other styles of coping and hoping. 

The season we find ourselves in now is Advent, the first season of the new Christian year, a season of waiting, of longing, of anticipating. Have you found yourself in a season like this before? If we’re honest, we’ve all found ourselves cycling through seasons of anxious anticipation in our lives - some because they do not have the resources for another meal, some amidst the darkness of depression, some during a time of marital uncertainty, some who fear violence because of the color of their skin, some amidst a time of vocational disruption. In these times of uncertainty, it can be hard to hope. It may just feel too dark. Or hope might feel like a cruel joke - why would I ever hope again? Or, hope might be twisted into the form of a kind of naive optimism - God will work it all out! 

Advent meets us right where we are, in whatever strategy for coping or hoping we might employ. Advent hits us between the eyes with the reality that our strategy is not ultimately hopeful, but a form of self-sabotage. And Advent makes the bold promise that by claiming our deepest needs and fears and uncertainties and bringing them in a form of lament and protest before God, we might actually meet the One who is Hope. Advent invites us to cry out from the core, to long and desire that things would be put right in the world and in our hearts. Advent is therapeutic.

Now, here is the tough part. Advent is not about naive optimism. Advent isn’t a promise that if we just spill our guts to God, everything will be neatly packaged in a glittering box for us on Christmas Day. Nor is Advent about settling for a life of deferred hope - a kind of despairing life where we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I guess the Christian life is just about waiting.” If either one of these is where we land, Advent has not yet done its therapeutic work. No, while Advent does not promise instant deliverance or a world made right overnight or the end of your depression and marital uncertainty, it does promise something even better.

God’s presence.

Advent anticipates the very best hope of all - Immanuel, God with us. I like to think of it this way. Sometimes, I need to be seen, to be known, maybe even to be hugged. I need you to be present to me in my pain. I don’t need a fix…I need you. And God knows this need better than we do. Advent anticipates God showing up. Advent invites you to cry out, “Will you show up for me?” It longs for the response, “I am with you, do not fear."

It is astounding to me…and it’s taken me 45 years to begin to get this…that God did not only show up, but God took up residence in my very being, and yours. Sometimes, when I’m in my stuff, I’m not very present to God. When things are tough, it’s not like God goes away, because God has taken up residence. No, it’s like I go away. I become a stranger to my own heart, my own being, my own presence. In those times, I feel lost. Advent’s cry is, “God, I need you. I’m tired of my own strategies for coping and hoping. Be with me.”

God is not like a meddling spouse or friend who tries to fix you. God comes closer. God listens. God waits with you. God dwells with you even when you feel like your being is the most repulsive, inhospitable residence in the world. God, in Jesus, is used to taking up residence in inhospitable places.

And so, join the Advent cry. Long deeply, and let Hope meet you right where you are.

Used by Permission

Rest: A Guided Christian Devotional Meditation

Originally Posted on November 29, 2015  | By: LYDIA KIM-VAN DAALEN

Thanksgiving is hardly over and many frantically start preparations for the Christmas season, unfortunately mostly not with a very Advent-minded spirit. Whether it’s Christmas preparations, work, family, sorrows, or something else, a lot of people are­­ – willingly, or unwillingly – trapped in, if not addicted to, busyness. It’s hard to find rest for our souls. Yet, the Prince of Peace has come so we may find true rest. This week’s meditation is a shortened version of a Guided Christian Devotional Meditation on Rest:

Lord, you are gracious, you are righteous, and full of mercy (Ps. 116:5). May this meditation be used to help your child find rest at this very moment and to take your rest into the confusion and busyness, the hustle and bustle of every day that only you know everything about.

Let’s begin by starting where you are right now. Here are some questions that help you focus on that which is causing unrest in you.

Are you overwhelmed by some of the burdens in your life?

Are you worrying about things in your present situation?

Are you anxious about what the future may bring?

Are life’s sorrows so heavy that you feel exhausted?

Or are you just running around trying to get everything done right and on time?

What in your life at this moment seems so intense, so big, or so scary that it takes away all restful space in your soul?

Take a moment to put your finger on the issue, to reflect on it, or even verbalize it in a prayer.


Your times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15)

Whatever you are experiencing may not go away right at this moment;

it may not even go away for a long time.

What can happen is that God infuses it with a rest that transforms your inner being and changes your perspective.

Your times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15)

Whatever it is that causes you to worry, to be weary, or busy, place it in your imagination in God’s hand.


Allow yourself to rest now as you know that your times, your issues, are in God’s hand. He’s got it under control. You may simply want to be quiet or you might want to reflect on what it means for you that your times are in God’s hands.


As you’ve become aware of one or more triggers of unrest in your soul, and as you have meditated on bringing this to God, listen to a few promises:

Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need (Mat 6:32, 33)

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Mat 11:29)

I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish (Jer 31: 24 ) 

Whenever you feel unrest creeping up in you, picture your issues or yourself in God’s hand and know that he is in control; your times are in his hands.

Choose to take a deep breath and live out of the rest that God promises for your soul.

Go in the rest and peace of the Lord and serve him with joy.

(Thank you to those who’ve expressed interest in receiving the full meditations of the previous weeks; if you’re interested in receiving this full meditation on rest (and/or last week’s) feel free to email me atlydiakim.vd@gmail.com. The full meditation is longer and allows for more guided interaction)


Solomon Vs. Catharsis: Why We Need Movies

Originally Posted on October 30, 2015 | By JOSHUA GIBBS

Why do people like movies so much? Why will we not shut up about movies? Why do we like making lists of our favorite movies, sharing those lists with friends, and perusing our friend’s lists of favorite movies? Why are movies so easy to talk about at a party? How is it that films are capable of uniting us? How has film become the universal art form? Snooty university profs are apt to enjoy good films, but so are little children. How is it that the National Board of Review named Wall E one of the top ten films of the 2008, and my four year old daughter concurs? What other art form is capable of drawing together Western civilization?

I do not know. It’s a mystery to me why film rose above the novel, above the symphony, above the theater to become the modern global art form, but I would like to talk about what movies are good for. I would like to talk about one bad theory as to what movies are good for, and I would like to suggest what Scripture has to say about the value of film in a world such as ours.

Sometimes you just need a good cry. The Greek theory of catharsis might be that simple. Sometimes you need a good cry, and sometimes you need to let a big, nasty, violent film help you work out all that aggression that’s been building up at work over the last month. The Greek theory of catharsis imagines man as a vessel which slowly fills with emotion. As the vessel fills, the soul of a man becomes painfully distended, and he needs to find a safe way of divesting himself of that emotion. If the man vicariously lives through the characters in a drama, he can empty himself of painful desire, delight, fear or grief, without becoming legally responsible for the actions of the character. Put another way, a man hates his boss and wants to kill him. As opposed to killing him, why not watch this character in this film pretend to kill his boss? That way, you get the pleasure of watching your boss die without having to go to jail.

Or, a man’s life is very boring, and he needs excitement, but he has little time to pursue it. Why not watch a movie about a spy, or a famous lover, or a serial killer— all of whom live very intense, dramatic lives— and imagine that man’s exciting life is yours, as well?

Or, to return to that good cry, perhaps the world seems like a very terrible place, and yet nothing in the world is so terrible as to bring you to tears, though you wish something could. Why not watch a story about an artificially awful world that will induce those tears that your benumbed soul cannot produce on their own?

In each of the aforementioned cases, a certain emotion (hatred, boredom, sadness) has swelled a man’s soul to an uncomfortable extent, and that man must rid himself of the hatred or boredom or sadness or he feels he will burst. Emotion is unstable, unpredictable, and a man must be regularly released from the dangerous effects of emotion if he wants to be safe. You don’t want that emotion coming out suddenly in a grocery store, or on a blind date. Emotion is Dionysian, undifferentiated, chaotic. Greek plays were performed at festivals which began with sacrifices to Dionysius (in Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart notes that our word “tragedy” is derived from the greek “tragos,” the goat sacrificed to the god before the plays began), and the god was known for his ability to deliver men from the exhausting tyranny of reason which typified the responsible, Apollonian day-to-day life. Apollo was normative, and the reasonable life was typical, but from time to time, a man needed to empty himself of self-control, self-awareness, and let wine take over. All the dark impulses of man needed space to roam, even if only for a little while.

While catharsis can sometimes appear to be a satisfying account of man’s emotional life (a good cry does feel good, doesn’t it? “…a sad face is good for the heart…” as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes), I believe it over simplifies the emotional complexities of a human being. From time to time, he gets a little full and needs to be emptied… as though it were that simple. The theory of catharsis radically separates man from his emotions. A man is not his emotions, but sits apart from anger, sadness, boredom and is capable of viewing those emotions as an objective other. We do  not speak of our emotions this way, though. We say, “I am angry.” We say, “I am sad.” We say, “I am glad.” Catharsis  reduces man to a receptacle of feeling. The receptacle is not angry, glad, or bored. The receptacle is clear and only appears red when it is filled with anger, only appears green when filled jealousy, only appears yellow when filled with cowardice, only appears blue when sad. And yet in Proverbs, Solomon teaches, “…as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” A man’s emotions have everlasting consequences, so in what sense is a man not his anger? Not his joy?

I suppose a key reason I am reticent to credit catharsis is, to be frank, it sounds great, but is rarely recognizable in the real world. Were catharsis a proper understanding of man and his emotions, why do we so regularly read that school shooters maintained a regular diet of violence before acting out that which they had so often fantasized? Why is pornography consumed serially, excessively, when the theory of catharsis suggests a few minutes of pornography ought to suit a man for months? Or, why does a man who saves his pocket money to buy his girlfriend a lavish gift not immediately begin to lose interest in her as soon as he gives it? Has that man not spent his love? Catharsis tends to make every human experience into an analog of the sexual experience, wherein desire rises to a pitch and then drops off precipitously.

At the same time, the good cry does something, and whatever that something is, it feels like relief. Is it? And does the relief of a good cry not go far in vindicating catharsis?

In place of catharsis, let me commend to you the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. If the reference is not immediately clear, I refer to Solomon’s “a time for this, a time for that” poem.

Examine the poem, and you’ll find there are twenty-eight times mentioned; twenty-eight is seven sets of four. Four is frequently employed in Scripture to connote humanity and the earth. There are four seasons, four directions, four Gospel writers (four human accounts of the Human One), four elements, four humors, four tempers… And seven is the number of finitude, limitation, completion, finality. In granting us twenty-eight times, Solomon describes the whole of life. God has appointed a season for every human activity, every human task, every proper human experience. “When times are good, be happy; when times are sad, remember: God has created one just as He has created the other,” writes Solomon. God has given man a time to gather stones, and a time to cast away stones. A time to laugh, and a time to mourn. A time to kill, and a time to heal. The infinite splendor of God is made manifest to man through a diversity of events, a complex of desires, some of them contradictory, and yet all of them ultimately capable of harmony… God has appointed such a diversity of events for man becomes He loves man, and desires man should know Him, God, as the Pale Rider who brings death and the Prince of Life, as well… the helpless Child who beholds His mother, and the Warrior who smites the Earth with the rod of His mouth, the lean, fasting student of John the Baptist, but also the “wine bibber” and Lord of the Feast…

The problem is, life in the city scales back the dynamic life of man. Society streamlines man’s life, tends to homogenize it, distract it. Granted, society can also provide a great diversity of experience, as well. In some ways, I imagine my life is richer than the life of a 10th century French onion farmer who never travelled more than ten miles from the spot on which he was conceived, born, helped another to conceive, slept, and died. I have seen art that man could not conceive. I have met strange human beings he could not fathom. My faith has been challenged in awful ways. At the same time, in a very different way, I imagine that 10th century farmer’s life had a greater breadth than my own. He understood the sacrifice involved in having beef for dinner. He intuited a connection between food and weather and prayer that I do not. My prayers for food are an afterthought, a given, obligatory, while his were desperate and genuine. There are profound ways in which life in the modern, Aristotelian city (of Darning and the 8:15, as per Auden) deprives a man of essential human experiences. I have often heard it said that when Gorbachev toured the United States in the 1980s, he remarked on “how well you hide your old people.” There are significant times which Solomon describes from which a city-dweller is cut off. If you would know God, you must reach outside the realm of your immediate experience, for your immediate experience has streamlined God from your life for the sake of ease. The life described in Ecclesiastes 3 is not an easy life, and when a man lives in a world which is always trying to make life easier, such a world is making God unknown.

And so we need movies. Art is God’s gracious condescension to the imbalanced world, the world which has a thousand times to kill and no times to heal… a million moments for laughter, and few for authentic mourning. Art is that which restores balance to a life overly centered on the this and not on the that. Art is the medicine of emotional harmony. Art accounts for those ways in which our world has been edited, formatted to fit this screen, bleeped out, fuzzed out, silenced, or aborted. The soul of the artist is variously empty, but his art fills that emptiness and so testifies to Solomon’s tantalizing spectrum of being in Ecclesiastes 3. The man whose life is overstuffed with laughter needs to go to the house of mourning, and Schindler’s List is just such an invitation. The man who has lingered too long in the house of mourning needs the hilarity of the angel-beast, and so his soul is restored when he watches Dumb and Dumber.

Unlike the cathartic view of human nature, Solomon commends not a mildness of emotional commitment, but pressing in to the hilt. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” teaches Solomon. When God gives you a time to cry, cry with all your might. When God gives you a time to laugh, laugh until your sides hurt. This is manifestly not the view of the Greeks, who believed an extremity of sentiment was painful. The “balance” suggested by Solomon is a balance of strength, not a balance of mildness.

But is film the easy way out? If a man has loitered too long in the house of riches, does he not need time in a soup kitchen? Is watching Wendy & Lucy not the easy way out? Is art not a convenient excuse for a genuinely dynamic life? Can film really restore balance, or merely an image of balanced life?

I know a few people who do not watch films. Some of them are profoundly interesting and live lives I think must be spectacularly fulfilling, and some of them are the most spiritually impoverished and tepid people imaginable. Most of the people I know hang somewhere in between these two extremes. I believe I do. Life in the city is hectic, busy, often awful, and while it is pretty to think that every one of Solomon’s essential human seasons can be encountered in a natural, unfeigned, unplanned way, for myself, this is not the case. I have a job, a family who both weighs upon and supports my soul… Films are a manner in which my soul can be quickly recalibrated, although films must be married with contemplation, introspection, music, liturgy, conversation. When I am depressed, I listen to Louis CK. “It is very easy to love you in the Autumn,” I often say to my wife. My excitement that Fall has arrived must be met by viewings of The Remains of the Day and Gattaca, lest I become overly happy… or overly wise. And I think many people employ films in such a manner… to balance, harmonize, level and focus their disheveled, lopsided lives.

I am grateful for the gift of film. I need films to help me feel, not because my feelings are broken, but because they are slanted, crooked, overcompensated, and the way of the Lord is straight.

Used by permission